By the Collections Team at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
Preface: This is the second in a blog series about Vergennes resident and steamboat captain Jahaziel Sherman. This series is based on the Museum’s digital exhibit Jahaziel Sherman of Vergennes, Steamboat Pioneer, which is free for all to explore online. We’ll be sharing more stories on Jahaziel and his work every other week; follow us on Facebook or Instagram for the next post.
So who was Jahaziel Sherman? Before we dive into the details of his career, let’s peek into the key moments in Jahaziel’s life that made him an important figure in Champlain Valley history.
Born on July 28, 1770 in Dartmouth, MA, only months after tension between colonists and British authorities erupted in the Boston Massacre, Jahaziel was six years old when the American Revolution began, and nineteen when George Washington became the first president of the United States. The Sherman family had roots in Dartmouth extending back four generations – Jahaziel’s great-grandfather John was first to move to the seafaring town in the 1670s. It is possible that the many mariners living and working in Dartmouth influenced Jahaziel’s career choice, although his exact motive for joining the maritime field is unknown.
In 1793, Jahaziel moved to Bath, NY, to begin his career as captain and owner of sloops on the Hudson River. He married Massachusetts native Nancy Winslow in 1795 and moved across the Hudson River to Albany where their first child, Richard Winslow Sherman, was born in 1797. Over the next fifteen years, the pair welcomed five more children. While three children passed away in infancy or childhood, their three oldest sons all reached adulthood.
At this period in time, sloops (one-masted sailboats) dominated maritime-based commerce on the Hudson River and the majority of passenger transit as well. Jahaziel must have found the Albany area’s sloop business profitable, as he continued to own and command a succession of sloops over the next 19 years.
In 1807, when Robert Fulton’s steamboat surpassed the finest Hudson River sloops, Jahaziel saw the challenge to the sloop business as an opportunity. He quickly began shifting his focus to invest in steam navigation as a steamboat captain. However, Fulton’s monopoly on steamboat operations in New York waters prohibited other steamboat companies from operating on the Hudson River, so Jahaziel joined other steamboat investors and moved to Vergennes, Vermont to serve as the general manager of the newly established Lake Champlain Steamboat Company.
Between 1813 and 1844, Jahaziel oversaw the construction and operation of six Lake Champlain steamboats: Phoenix, Champlain, Congress, Phoenix II, Franklin, and Water Witch. (The hull of his first steamer, Ticonderoga, was purchased by the U.S. Navy to serve as a sloop of war in the War of 1812.) He also helped to start steamboat service on Lake George.
Midway through his steamboat-building career, Jahaziel was struck by three misfortunes:
- On August 7, 1820, his wife of 25 years, 47-year old Nancy Winslow Sherman died of consumption (now known as tuberculosis) in their Vergennes home.
- Just under two months later, on October 5, the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company storehouse went up in flames, destroying an estimated $5,000 worth of timber and other materials stockpiled for the building of Phoenix II.
- The following summer, on June 24, his youngest son, 11-year-old Charles, drowned in Otter Creek. He was buried alongside his mother in Vergennes’ School Street cemetery.
Jahaziel lived as a widower for a year and half before marrying 29-year-old Harriet Daggett in December 1821. Jahaziel and Harriet made their home on what is now Macdonough Drive in Vergennes. They had three children: a daughter who died young, and two sons.
Vergennes held a special place in Jahaziel’s heart, and he kept the small city in mind in all his endeavors including shipbuilding, property ownership, investments, and even local government work (more about this to come in a later blog). He was committed to keeping Vergennes thriving and operating as a city.
After thirty years in the Champlain Valley as a leader in transportation, business, and government, Captain Jahaziel Sherman died in 1844 in Vergennes, aged 74. Jahaziel was survived by his second wife, Harriet Daggett Sherman, and five sons aged 47 to 16. His three oldest sons became steamboat captains, navigating on waters including Lake Champlain, the Great Lakes, and the St. Lawrence, Hudson, and Mississippi Rivers. While his time in Vergennes ended in 1844, his impact on Lake Champlain endures to this day.
This blog series and digital exhibit are based on research by Kevin Crisman, George Schwartz, Caroline Kennedy, and museum staff members Eloise Beil, Patricia Reid, and Chris Sabick. This project was supported by a 2019 Collections Grant from the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership.